Over the past fifty years, nonviolent civil resistance has overtaken armed struggle as the most common form of mobilization used by revolutionary movements. Yet even as civil resistance reached a new peak of popularity during the 2010s, its effectiveness had begun to decline—even before the covid-19 pandemic brought mass demonstrations to a temporary halt in early 2020. This essay argues that the decreased success of nonviolent civil resistance was due not only to savvier state responses, but also to changes in the structure and capabilities of civil-resistance movements themselves. Perhaps counterintuitively, the coronavirus pandemic may have helped to address some of these underlying problems by driving movements to turn their focus back to relationship-building, grassroots organizing, strategy, and planning.
The year 2019 saw what may have been the largest wave of mass, nonviolent antigovernment movements in recorded history.1 Large-scale protests, strikes, and demonstrations erupted across dozens of countries on an unprecedented scale. While 2011 has been called the year of the protester, 2019 has an even greater claim to that title.
In some cases, these uprisings yielded dramatic results. In April 2019, Omar al-Bashir—the Sudanese tyrant who had overseen the massacre of hundreds of thousands in Darfur, given sanctuary to jihadist groups in the 1990s, and terrorized opponents with mass arrests, torture, and summary executions—fell from power. Weeks later, Algeria’s president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who was seeking an unconstitutional fifth term in office, also fell, toppled by a popular uprising known as the Smile Revolution. In July 2019, the governor of Puerto Rico was forced to resign after hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans gathered in mass demonstrations and carried out work stoppages, demanding accountability for his ineptitude and mocking statements regarding victims of Hurricane Maria. And since October 2019, governments have fallen to popular protest movements in places as diverse as Iraq, Lebanon, and Bolivia. In Chile, protests against austerity measures forced the government into prolonged negotiations over its fiscal policies. In Hong Kong, the leaderless movement that emerged to resist a pro-Beijing extradition law bolstered its numbers and escalated its demands following a mismanaged and brutal crackdown, propelling prodemocracy parties to victory in November 2019 local-government elections. In the first serious [End Page 69] challenge to the legitimacy of the right-wing turn carried out by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, hundreds of thousands of Indians began taking part in a mass campaign to resist citizenship-registration plans that threaten to render millions of Indian Muslims stateless. And since 2017, the United States has experienced its own wave of mass movements mobilizing for racial justice, immigration justice, gun control, women’s rights, climate justice, LGBTQ rights, and Donald Trump’s impeachment or resignation, among other goals.
Within a few months, however, most of this street activity had ground to a halt. The global coronavirus pandemic—and government responses to it—forced people in early 2020 to abandon mass demonstrations. Taking advantage of this sudden lapse in conventional forms of popular resistance, a host of governments across the world have pushed forward divisive policies that range from the suspension of free speech to controversial judicial appointments to bans on immigrant or refugee admissions.
The interruption caused by the pandemic only added to a series of daunting challenges that have plagued mass movements in recent years. In fact, although nonviolent resistance campaigns reached a new peak of popularity over the past decade, their effectiveness had begun to decline even before the pandemic hit. The main culprit for this has been changes in the structure and capabilities of these movements themselves. Perhaps counterintuitively, the coronavirus pandemic may have helped to address some of these underlying problems by driving movements to turn their focus back to relationship-building, grassroots organizing, strategy, and developing narratives that resonate with a captive audience. And as 2020 continues to unfold, many movements—including those in the United States—have roared back with much greater strength and capacity for long-term transformation.
The Expansion of Nonviolent Resistance
Nonviolent resistance is a method of struggle in which unarmed people confront an adversary by using collective action—including protests, demonstrations, strikes, and noncooperation—to build power and achieve political goals. Sometimes called civil resistance, people power, unarmed struggle, or nonviolent action, nonviolent resistance has become a mainstay of political action across the globe. Armed struggle used to be the primary way in which movements fought for change from outside the political system. Today, campaigns in which people rely overwhelmingly on nonviolent resistance have replaced armed struggle as the most common approach to contentious action worldwide.
For example, over the period 1900–2019, analysts have identified a total of 628 maximalist mass campaigns (those that seek to remove the incumbent national leadership from power or create territorial independence [End Page 70] through secession or the expulsion of a foreign military occupation or colonial power).2 Although liberation movements are often depicted as bands of gun-wielding rebels, fewer than half these campaigns (303) involved organized armed resistance. The other 325 relied overwhelmingly on nonviolent civil resistance.3 Faced with dire circumstances, more people turn to nonviolent civil resistance than to violence—and this has become increasingly true over the past fifty years.
As Figure 1 shows, violent insurgencies have declined since the 1970s, while nonviolent resistance campaigns have grown much more common. But the numbers for the last decade—from 2010 to 2019—are truly staggering. This period saw not only the most nonviolent resistance recorded since 1900, but the launch of no fewer than 96 nonviolent maximalist campaigns. This is far more than the previous record for revolutionary eruptions in a single decade (60 between 2000 and 2009). Fifteen mass nonviolent campaigns began in 2019 alone, and 24 others were continuing as 2019 ended.
Why have people seeking political change increasingly been turning to civil resistance? There are a few possible reasons.
First, it may be that more people around the world have come to see nonviolent resistance as a legitimate and successful method for creating change—a factor addressed in greater detail below. Although nonviolent resistance is not yet universally understood or accepted, the preference [End Page 71] for nonviolent resistance has become more widespread.4
Second, new information technology is making it easier to learn about events that previously went unreported.5 As internet access expands, more and more people are consuming news online via newspaper websites, social media, private chatrooms, and more. People in Mongolia can read about, become inspired by, and learn from the deeds of people in Malawi. As an increasingly common and effective method of struggle, civil resistance may be drawing increased attention from news outlets and scholars around the globe. And with access to new channels of communication, people can also bypass formal gatekeepers to communicate directly with others whom they perceive as likeminded. Since elites can no longer control information as easily as they once could, news and information featuring ordinary people may be easier to find today.
Third, the market for violence is drying up. This is most strikingly obvious with regard to outside state support for armed groups, which fell off sharply with the breakup of the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, the United States and USSR armed and financed dozens of rebel groups across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. A changed global balance of power after 1991 functionally ended this competition-by-proxy.
Fourth, in the postwar era, wider segments of society have come to value and expect fairness, the protection of human rights, and the avoidance of needless violence.6 This normative shift may have heightened popular interest in civil resistance as a way to advocate for human rights.7 The horrors of war have become much more visible than in the past, while realistic alternatives are more clearly within reach. As Selina Gallo-Cruz points out, the post–Cold War rise in nonviolent resistance also coincided with the growing presence of international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) explicitly focused on sharing information about the theory and practice of nonviolent resistance, such as the Albert Einstein Institution, the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, Nonviolence International, and the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies.8
Fifth, more troublingly, people today may have new motivations to resist. Over the past decade, more and more democratic governments have faltered and reverted into authoritarianism.9 In recent years, the erosion of democratic rights has provoked mass protest movements both in authoritarian countries such as Egypt, Hungary, and Turkey, and in [End Page 72] democracies such as Brazil, Poland, and the United States. With the advent of the Trump presidency, many people in the United States have begun to embrace the theory and knowledge of civil resistance—and to put these insights into action. And the U.S. retreat from a global democracy agenda—and indeed, the erosion of democratic institutions within the United States itself—has shaken confidence that established institutions are willing or able to manage urgent policy challenges such as racial justice, climate change, public health, and rising inequality. Throughout much of the world, youth populations are increasing, and these demographic pressures are producing growing demands for jobs, education, and opportunity. Record numbers of highly educated youth are unemployed in some places. Even before the covid-19 pandemic wreaked economic havoc around the world, popular expectations of economic justice and opportunity have clashed with disappointing realities in economies that have been weakened in the wake of the 2008 financial crash.
The massive growth of civil-resistance campaigns around the world is therefore both a sign of success and a sign of failure. The success is that so many people have come to believe that they can confront injustice using strategic nonviolent methods, while fewer are turning to armed action. The failure is that so many injustices remain—and so few institutions are equipped to address them—that the demand for civil resistance has increased.
The Record of Nonviolent Resistance
Without understanding the dynamics of civil resistance, it would be hard to make sense of the political world that we live in today. At the outset of 1989, the international system appeared to be organized entirely around powerful nation-states and the elites who governed them. The civil uprisings that toppled the Soviet-backed regimes of Central and Eastern Europe in that year marked the start of three decades of dramatic change. The Black-led anti-apartheid movement in South Africa succeeded in bringing down the country’s regime of legally enshrined racial discrimination, although racism, segregation, and economic inequality persist. A number of autocratic regimes in postcommunist Europe and Central Asia have succumbed to so-called color revolutions. Primarily peaceful resistance movements have deposed three Arab dictators and shaken the grip of several others.
All these shifts flowed—in whole or in part—from sustained grassroots civic action. Indeed, the third and fourth waves of democratization were driven to a large extent by bottom-up movements demanding that their governments expand individual political rights and be held accountable through fair elections, a free press, an impartial criminal-justice system, and so on.10 [End Page 73]
Scholars of civil resistance generally define “success” as the overthrow of a government or territorial independence achieved because of a campaign within a year of its peak.11 Among the 565 campaigns that have both begun and ended over the past 120 years, about 51 percent of the nonviolent campaigns have succeeded outright, while only about 26 percent of the violent ones have. Nonviolent resistance thus outperforms violence by a 2-to-1 margin. (Sixteen percent of the nonviolent campaigns and 12 percent of violent ones ended in limited success, while 33 percent of nonviolent campaigns and 61 percent of violent ones ultimately failed.) Moreover, in countries where civil-resistance campaigns took place, chances of democratic consolidation, periods of relative postconflict stability, and various quality-of-life indicators were higher after the conflict than in the countries that experienced civil war.12
This holds true even when nonviolent campaigns faced down brutal autocrats. Contrary to popular belief, it is not the case that nonviolent campaigns emerge or win out mainly when the regimes they confront are politically weak, incompetent, or unwilling to employ mass violence. Once a mass movement arises and unsettles the status quo, most regimes confront unarmed protesters with brute force, only to see even larger numbers of demonstrators turn out to protest the brutality.13 Besides, even when regime type, government repression, and military capacity are taken into account, nonviolent campaigns are still far more likely to succeed than violent resistance.14 This is because they tend to be larger, more cross-cutting, and therefore more politically representative than armed movements. This provides numerous openings through which they can bring about defections, pulling the regime’s pillars of support out from under it at decisive moments. This happens when security forces refuse to follow orders to shoot at demonstrators, as in Serbia in 2000. Or it can happen when business or economic elites start responding to public pressure by voicing support for the movement, as numerous white business owners did in South Africa following waves of Black-led strikes, boycotts, and global sanctions initiated in support of the anti-apartheid movement. In other settings, important political players, such as powerful labor unions or professional associations, begin to stop cooperating with the regime, as happened during the Sudanese revolution of 2019. Basically, the larger the movement, the more likely it is to disrupt the status quo and induce defections that sever the regime from its major pillars of support. And nonviolent movements have the capacity to expand participation in ways that armed groups cannot.15 The widespread view that only violent action can be strong and effective is deeply mistaken.
Of course, civil-resistance campaigns do not always usher in peace and prosperity. In Syria in 2011, dictator Bashar al-Assad responded to a nonviolent struggle by unleashing military force and even chemical weapons against his civilian population. The resulting conflict has [End Page 74] continued for nearly ten years now and has become the bloodiest civil war of the current century, forcing some three-million people to flee the country. In 2011, the U.S.-backed government of Bahrain crushed a nonviolent movement that tried to challenge the monarchy there. And in Ukraine, a people-power movement managed to push Russian-backed kleptocrat Viktor Yanukovych from power in February 2014—but rather than permitting Ukraine to move deeper into the European orbit, Russia seized the Ukrainian territory of Crimea and has fueled an ongoing and deadly war of secession in Ukraine’s east.
Nonviolent campaigns over the past ten years have succeeded less often than their historical counterparts. From the 1960s until about 2010, success rates for revolutionary nonviolent campaigns remained above 40 percent, climbing as high as 65 percent in the 1990s. But success rates for all revolutions have since declined, as shown in Figure 2. Since 2010, less than 34 percent of nonviolent revolutions and a mere 8 percent of violent ones have succeeded.
While governments have had greater success at beating down challenges to their authority, nonviolent resistance still outperformed violent resistance by a 4-to-1 margin. That is because armed confrontation has grown even less successful, continuing a downward trend that has been underway since the 1970s. These caveats notwithstanding, the last decade has seen a sharp decline in the success rate for civil resistance—reversing [End Page 75] much of the overall upward trend of the previous sixty years.
The past decade therefore presents a troubling paradox: Just as civil resistance has become the most common approach to challenging regimes, it has begun to grow less effective—at least in the short term.
What Has Changed?
The most tempting explanations for the decline in effectiveness of civil-resistance campaigns center on the changed environment within which they now operate.
First, movements may be facing more entrenched regimes—ones that have prevailed against repeated challenges by shoring up support from local allies and key constituencies; imprisoning prominent oppositionists; provoking opponents into using violence; stoking fears of foreign or imperial conspiracies; or obtaining diplomatic cover from powerful international supporters. The regimes in Belarus, Iran, Russia, Syria, Turkey, and Venezuela have proved especially resilient in the face of challenges from below. There is no doubt that activists who work in such settings are confronting grave difficulties. Yet this post hoc explanation for movement failure has its shortcomings. Many regimes—such as Bashir’s government in Sudan—are seen as immutable and resilient up until the moment that a nonviolent resistance movement topples them, after which observers claim that the regimes were weak after all. But over history, many once-stable autocratic regimes—such as Chile under Augusto Pinochet, East Germany under Erich Honecker, Egypt under Hosni Mubarak, and communist Poland—succumbed to nonviolent movements after skillful mobilizations that often marked the culmination of years of effort.
Second, governments may be learning and adapting to nonviolent challenges from below.16 Several decades ago, authoritarian regimes frequently found themselves surprised by the sudden onset of mass nonviolent uprisings, and governments struggled to find ways to suppress these movements without triggering increased popular sympathy and support for the repressed. Elites may also have underestimated the potential of people power to seriously threaten their rule. Today, given the ample historical record of successful nonviolent campaigns, state actors are likelier to perceive such movements as genuinely threatening. Consequently, autocratic regimes have developed a repertoire of politically savvy approaches to repression.17 One prominent strategy is to infiltrate movements and divide them from within. In this way, the authorities can provoke a nonviolent movement into using more militant tactics, including violence, before the movement has built a broad enough base to ensure its popular support and staying power.
Third, with the election of Donald Trump in 2016, the United States has accelerated its retreat from its global role as a superpower with a [End Page 76] prodemocracy agenda. Although many have critiqued this agenda as a form of neo-imperialism shrouded in liberalism, the liberal international order established by the U.S. and other leading Western nations also coincided with an expansion of human-rights regimes that produced governmental and nongovernmental watchdogs who named and shamed human-rights abuses. These trends may have opened space for political dissent in many countries around the world.18 Daniel Ritter has argued that in the post–Cold War world, authoritarian regimes were particularly susceptible to nonviolent challenges from below because they needed to maintain the semblance of respect for human rights in order to appease their democratic allies and patrons.19 For instance, Egypt’s dependence on foreign assistance meant that when revolution broke out in 2011, the Egyptian military was highly attuned to scrutiny from liberal democracies such as the United States. Without an activist United States—and, more broadly, without powerful champions of human rights who have real leverage or enforcement capacity vis-à-vis autocratic regimes—we would expect greater brutality against nonviolent dissidents.
That argument may have some merit. But it also it overstates the degree to which the United States has been a genuine champion of democracy and human rights around the world. After all, the United States has a long history of helping to install right-wing autocrats in the postwar period—including Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in Iran, General Joseph Mobutu in Congo, General Augusto Pinochet in Chile, and others who came to power through U.S.-backed coups. The argument also overestimates the degree to which democratic patrons have real leverage over how their autocratic allies conduct their domestic affairs. Historically, the fate of nonviolent resistance campaigns has depended much more on their ability to build their power by securing mass participation, as well as defections among security forces and economic elites, than on the behavior of fickle foreign governments.20
Therefore, upon deeper inspection, although it may be that states have begun to better anticipate and suppress nonviolent resistance, the two structural arguments have little support in the historical record. Instead, the most compelling explanations for the declining effectiveness of nonviolent campaigns lie in the changing nature of the campaigns themselves.
How Movements Have Changed
First, in terms of participation, civil-resistance campaigns have become somewhat smaller on average than in the past. There have certainly been impressive mass demonstrations in the years since 2010. In 2017 and 2019, millions of people turned out to protest against Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro. And in Chile, the October 2019 uprising against the government of President Sebastián Piñera reportedly drew a million people nationwide. Yet despite the dramatic images of crowds [End Page 77] filling public spaces, recent movements on the whole, at their peaks, have actually been smaller than successful movements of the late 1980s and 1990s. In the 1980s, the average nonviolent campaign involved about 2 percent of the population in the country where it was underway. In the 1990s, the average campaign included a staggering 2.7 percent of the population. But since 2010, the average peak participation has been only 1.3 percent, continuing a decline that began in the 2000s. This is a crucial change. A mass uprising is more likely to succeed when it includes a larger proportion and a more diverse cross-section of a nation’s population.
Second, contemporary movements tend to over-rely on mass demonstrations while neglecting other techniques—such as general strikes and mass civil disobedience—that can more forcefully disrupt a regime’s stability. Because demonstrations and protests are what most people associate with civil resistance, those who seek change are increasingly launching these kinds of actions before they have developed real staying power or a strategy for transformation. Compared to other methods, street protests may be easier to organize or improvise on short notice. In the digital age, such actions can draw participants in large numbers even without any structured organizing coalition to carry out advanced planning and coordinate communication.21 But mass demonstrations are not always the most effective way of applying pressure to elites, particularly when they are not sustained over time. Other techniques of noncooperation, such as general strikes and stay-at-homes, can be much more disruptive to economic life and thus elicit more immediate concessions. It is often quiet, behind-the-scenes planning and organizing that enable movements to mobilize in force over the long term, and to coordinate and sequence tactics in a way that builds participation, leverage, and power.22 For the many contemporary movements organized around leaderless resistance, such capacities can be difficult to develop.
Very possibly related to movements’ overemphasis on public demonstrations and marches is a third important factor: Recent movements have increasingly relied on digital organizing, via social media in particular.23 This creates both strengths and liabilities. On the one hand, digital organizing makes today’s movements very good at assembling participants en masse on short notice.24 It allows people to communicate their grievances broadly, across audiences of thousands or even millions. It gives organizers outlets for mass communication that are not controlled by mainstream institutions or governments. But the resulting movements are less equipped to channel their numbers into effective organizations that can plan, negotiate, establish shared goals, build on past victories, and sustain their ability to disrupt a regime.25 Some movements that have emerged from digital organizing have found ways to create long-term organizations. But even then, their initial reliance on [End Page 78] the internet has a dark side: Easier communication also means easier surveillance. Those in power can harness digital technologies to monitor, single out, and suppress dissidents. Autocrats have also exploited digital technologies not only to rally their own supporters, but also to spread misinformation, propaganda, and countermessaging.
This leads to the fourth factor that may be contributing to the decreased effectiveness of contemporary civil-resistance movements: Nonviolent movements increasingly embrace or tolerate fringes that become violent.26 From the 1970s until 2010, the share of nonviolent movements with violent flanks remained between 30 and 35 percent. In 2010–19, it climbed to more than half.
Even when the overwhelming majority of activists remain nonviolent, civil-resistance movements that mix in some armed violence—such as street fighting with police or attacking counterprotesters—tend to be less successful in the end than movements that remain disciplined in rejecting violence.27 This is because violence tends to increase indiscriminate repression against movement participants and sympathizers while making it harder for the movement to paint participants as innocent victims of this brutality. Entrenched regimes can cast violent skirmishers as threats to public order. In fact, governments often infiltrate movements to provoke them into adopting violence at the margins, thereby giving the regime justification for the use of heavy-handed tactics. What powerholders really fear is resilient, nonviolent, mass rebellion—which exposes as a lie their aura of invincibility while simultaneously removing any excuses for violent crackdowns.
Several clear lessons emerge from comparing contemporary movements to their historical antecedents. First, movements that engage in careful planning, organization, training, and coalition-building prior to mass mobilization are more likely to draw a large and diverse following than movements that take to the streets before hashing out a political program and strategy. Second, movements that grow in size and diversity are more likely to succeed—particularly if they are able to maintain momentum. Third, movements that do not rely solely on digital organizing techniques are more likely to build a sustainable following. And finally, movements that come up with strategies for maintaining unity and discipline under pressure may fare better than movements that leave these matters to chance.
Does Nonviolent Resistance Have a Future?
There is no doubt that the covid-19 pandemic has been a sharp and sudden blow to the dozens of ongoing civil-resistance movements around the world. Indeed, in the pandemic’s early months it became standard to see headlines in major newspapers announcing the end of protest as a result of social-distancing mandates combined with the expansion [End Page 79] of executive powers in an array of countries.28 But as made clear by the widespread antiracism protests in the United States in response to the killing of Ahmaud Arbery by white vigilantes and the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd at the hands of police, the era of mass demonstrations is not about to end, in the United States or anywhere else.
Still, even as the causes that power movements remain alive, the global shutdown has provided opportunities for important stocktaking, regrouping, and planning for the next phase of protracted struggles for democracy and rights. Indeed, given the reduced success of recent movements, such regrouping and stock-taking may be essential if mass movements are to make meaningful progress. Movements’ future capacity to build people power from below depends on how they invest their time and resources during the global shutdown.
There is reason for hope in this regard. First, many of the measures now in common use by prodemocracy and progressive activists—mutual-aid pods, strikes, stay-at-homes, sick-ins, online teachins, and various expressions of solidarity with and collective support for frontline workers—are positive shifts in the movement landscape. In the United States alone, mutual-aid networks in New York, Boston, the Bay Area, and other cities have crowdsourced emergency relief funds, food, personal protective equipment, and errands; coordinated the distribution of money and vital supplies; and raised community awareness about the unequal effects of the pandemic (and government responses) on Black and brown communities in particular. Those networks strengthened communication networks, grassroots provision of public goods, and communal trust and reciprocity during the pandemic. These efforts were supercharged with the onset of the antiracism uprisings, with many mutual-aid networks immediately mobilizing donations to bail funds and other forms of community relief in the wake of a heavy-handed government response to mass protests.
Although such measures rarely make for eye-catching photos in the way that mass demonstrations do, they represent a new phase of tactical innovation. Through these efforts, movements are updating and renewing the outdated playbook that has led them to rely exclusively on protest at the expense of methods such as noncooperation and the development [End Page 80] of alternative institutions. From the Indian independence movement to Poland’s Solidarity to Black liberation groups in South Africa and the United States, movements have gained civic strength when they have developed alternative institutions to build self-sufficiency and address community problems that governments have neglected or ignored. Gandhi called this the “constructive program” and considered it one of the two pillars of his technique of satyagraha, equal in importance to noncooperation.
Of course, many protests continue—either in outright defiance of social-distancing measures or in spite of them. But this makes such actions all the more striking—and compelling. The fact that people are willing to risk their health to resist injustice raises awareness of the gravity and urgency of their claims. Elsewhere, people are experimenting with socially distant protests—including car caravans, pots-and-pans protests or cacerolazos, and even socially distant protests such as a 1,200-person action against Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu that took place in Tel Aviv in April 2020. And across the globe, essential workers—from warehouse employees to grocers to nurses at emergency departments and beyond—have used walk-outs, sick-ins, and strikes to demand safer workplace conditions, often yielding immediate concessions from employers in the forms of masks, gloves, and hazard pay. Work stoppages in the medical, grocery, tech, and meatpacking sectors and other forms of noncooperation put significant power in the hands of these workers, precisely because they are vital to keeping the food supply flowing, transport running, and public-health services in operation. Strikes and work stoppages among these workers are very difficult to combat without risking a major public backlash, creating a key vulnerability for governments.
Second, the pandemic may provide a much-needed pause for many activists and organizers who tend to move from one march to the next with very little time for reflection, strategy, or relationship-building. During lockdowns, movements have been able to step away from planning large-scale events and focus on building resilient coalitions with a greater capacity for bringing about lasting transformation. Many movements around the world have used the time to invest in planning longer-term strategies, building relationships among potential coalition partners, and developing training modules aimed at launching more effective challenges. Events such as Earth Day Live—a multiday online action for climate justice—brought together hundreds of organizations to share skills, strategies, and inspiration for global action on climate change. Movements such as Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion, and the Sunrise Movement organized webinars to talk about the ways in which they could continue to promote climate action during lockdown. In the United States, movements fighting for racial justice, voting rights, and climate action convened skills-shares and teach-ins, helping to shine the light on the unequal effects of the pandemic on marginalized [End Page 81] communities, including African Americans. Such activities have helped to galvanize public awareness of urgent inequalities in a way that set the stage for much larger and more sustained collective action.
Finally, the pandemic is giving publics a view of the stark contrast between populists and autocrats on the one hand and liberal or social democrats on the other when it comes to how they respond to crises. The four top countries in terms of the number of reported coronavirus infections as of this writing in June 2020—the United States, Russia, Brazil, and the United Kingdom—are helmed by populist or authoritarian leaders whose handling of the pandemic has been disastrous. Instead of acting preemptively to prepare their publics for a protracted period of quarantine, making testing widely available, and prioritizing flattening the curve through timely and accurate information, leaders in these countries have denied or minimized the pandemic, invoked conspiracy theories to deflect blame, and stoked domestic political divisions—for instance, by calling on supporters to defy mayors and governors who advocated strict public-health mandates, or by blaming national crises on protesters fighting for racial justice.
These missteps with their deadly consequences may have sinister long-term implications, but they could also sharpen public awareness of the urgency of political change, reminding voters that mismanaged crises affect everyone living in the country. Many movements have already adjusted their frames to focus on the need for genuine democratic renewal in the face of government incompetence in responding to the pandemic, threats to civil rights, racism and ethnocentrism, and economic insecurity. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro is facing his first real political crisis as his public-approval ratings plummet due to his flouting of global public-health recommendations. In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega’s leadership failures have similarly provided prodemocracy activists with renewed motivation to push for change.
In February in Hong Kong, hospital workers went on strike to protest the government’s unwillingness to close the border with mainland China in order to stop the spread of the virus—echoing the earlier resistance to China’s encroachment on Hong Kong’s independence. That strike forced the government to close all save three of its border checkpoints, demonstrating the power of noncooperation by essential workers. And at the end of May, thousands of Hong Kong protesters filled the streets in defiance of stay-at-home guidance to resist Beijing’s plans to push through a new national-security law that threatens to further tighten the mainland’s grip on Hong Kong. Movements fighting for climate justice have also adjusted their frames to reflect the growing concern that future pandemics could emerge as a result of climate inaction now. And the ongoing U.S. protests against racism and police violence are tied to the fact that African Americans have perished from coronavirus at much higher rates than whites—among other persistent social, political, and economic inequalities. Because the pandemic has already affected the [End Page 82] lives of billions of people worldwide, these messages are likely to resonate with a broader base now than they did before the crisis.
Thus, in spite of the recent setbacks for nonviolent campaigns around the world, 2020 need not represent the end of successful nonviolent resistance. Instead, the pandemic has served as a much-needed reset for movements around the world—and many of them have used the time wisely. [End Page 83]
The author thanks Sooyeon Kang and Christopher Wiley Shay for their contributions to the data collection, and participants in academic seminars at Columbia University, Wellesley College, and Harvard University for their useful feedback. I am also grateful to Zoe Marks for comments on a draft of this article, and to E.J. Graff for editorial assistance. Remaining errors are my own.
1. Erica Chenoweth et al., “This May Be the Largest Wave of Nonviolent Mass Movements in World History. What Comes Next?” Washington Post, Monkey Cage blog, 16 November 2019.
2. This count combines data from the Nonviolent and Violent Campaigns and Outcomes Data Project (v. 1.3) with the Major Episodes of Contention Data Set. During the same time period, there have been thousands of campaigns pursuing other goals, such as women’s rights, labor rights, queer and LGBTI rights, environmental justice, economic justice, corporate accountability, peace, and various policy changes. The statistics presented in this essay focus primarily on maximalist campaigns. This is not because I am more interested in these campaigns, but because they constitute a more limited subset of mass movements for which figures are widely available. Data are available from the author on request.
3. About 40 percent of the nonviolent campaigns also involved a violent flank, which I address in later in this essay.
4. Erica Chenoweth, “Why is Nonviolent Resistance on the Rise?” Diplomatic Courier (28 June 2016).
5. Erica Chenoweth, “Why is Nonviolent Resistance on the Rise?”
6. Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York: Viking, 2011).
7. For more detail and some additional hypotheses, see Maciej Bartkowski, ed. Recovering Nonviolent History: Civil Resistance in Liberation Struggles (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2013).
8. Selina Gallo-Cruz, “Nonviolence Beyond the State: International NGOs and Local Nonviolent Mobilization,” International Sociology 34 (November 2019): 655–74.
9. See Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2020 report, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2020/leaderless-struggle-democracy.
10. Jonathan C. Pinckney, From Dissent to Democracy: The Promise and Perils of Civil Resistance Transitions (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020); Markus Bayer, Felix S. Bethke, and Daniel Lambach, “The Democratic Dividend of Nonviolent Resistance,” Journal of Peace Research 53 (November 2016): 758–71; Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011); Mauricio Rivera Celestino and Kristian Skrede Gleditsch, “Fresh Carnations or All Thorn, No Rose? Nonviolent Campaigns and Transitions in Autocracies,” Journal of Peace Research 50 (May 2013): 385–400.
11. This definition of success is contested, although for practical purposes it is the most reliable to use in comparing across cases. Some research also focuses on longer-term successes, such as the expansion of democracy, rights, and stability.
12. Judith Stoddard, “How Do Major, Violent and Nonviolent Opposition Campaigns, Impact Predicted Life Expectancy at Birth?” Stability: International Journal of Security & Development 2, no. 2 (2013).
13. Brian Martin, Justice Ignited: The Dynamics of Backfire (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007); Lester R. Kurtz and Lee A. Smithey, eds. The Paradox of Repression and Nonviolent Movements (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2018).
14. Chenoweth and Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works, Chapter 3.
15. Chenoweth and Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works.
16. Erica Chenoweth, “Trends in Nonviolent Resistance and State Response: Is Violence Toward Civilian-Based Movements on the Rise?” Global Responsibility to Protect 9 (January 2017): 86–100.
17. Erica Chenoweth, “The Trump Administration’s Adoption of the Anti-Revolutionary Toolkit,” PS: Political Science and Politics 51 (January 2018): 19–20; Chenoweth, “Trends in Nonviolent Resistance and State Response.”
18. Kathryn Sikkink, Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).
19. Daniel P. Ritter, The Iron Cage of Liberalism: International Politics and Unarmed Revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).
20. Chenoweth and Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works.
21. Zeynep Tufekci, Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017).
22. Chenoweth et al., “This May Be the Largest Wave.”
23. Linda Herrera, Revolution in the Age of Social Media: The Egyptian Popular Insurrection and the Internet (London: Verso, 2014).
24. Tufekci, Twitter and Tear Gas.
25. Asef Bayat, Revolution Without Revolutionaries: Making Sense of the Arab Spring (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017); George Lawson, Anatomies of Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).
26. See also Erica Chenoweth, “The Rise of Nonviolent Resistance,” PRIO Policy Brief 19 (2016); Chenoweth, “Why Is Nonviolent Resistance on the Rise?”
27. Omar Wasow, “Agenda Seeding: How 1960s Black Protests Moved Elites, Public Opinion, and Voting,” American Political Science Review (forthcoming); Erica Chenoweth and Kurt Schock, “Do Contemporaneous Armed Challenges Affect the Outcomes of Mass Nonviolent Campaigns?” Mobilization: An International Quarterly 20 (December 2015): 427–51.
28. Evan Gerstmann,”How the COVID-19 Crisis is Threatening Freedom and Democracy Across the Globe,” Forbes, 12 April 2020, www.forbes.com/sites/evangerstmann/2020/04/12/how-the-covid-19-crisis-is-threatening-freedom-and-democracy-across-the-globe/#6dec63234f16.
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